How effective are remote methods of delivering outreach and widening participation activity? A new study aims to find out.
When the Covid-19 pandemic meant that widening participation organisations were no longer able to meet young people face to face, they rose smartly to the challenge. University outreach teams, Uni Connect staff and other interested bodies produced a range of online and at-home resources, in some cases even distributing them through food banks. Although there is little academic literature as yet about the efficacy of such schemes, internal evaluations from my own institution, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), suggest that they were welcomed by pupils and their parents.
As the education sector once again reaches for normality, nobody is suggesting that all WP provision should remain online. School groups can once again be seen touring campuses, and the university visit is widely recognised as a key element of successful outreach work. But when it comes to content that can be delivered remotely – employability sessions, for example, or student finance talks – there is an argument for retaining some online provision indefinitely.
The advantage for the provider is clear – a significant saving on staff travel time, meaning that more target pupils can be reached – but there may be advantages for schools as well. In a study I conducted on behalf of Future U, the Lancashire Uni Connect (Canovan and Fallon, 2021), school leaders noted that one benefit of online outreach was that a larger group of pupils could participate, meaning that selection criteria for activities, which can be quite onerous, could be relaxed. Asynchronous activities such as pre-recorded short videos can also be easier to fit into the school day than a full-scale visit from a WP practitioner.
Given the above, it is easy to see that it is tempting for WP organisations to retain a ‘blended’ approach, combining some in-person activity with online delivery, both live and asynchronous. However, there is one key question which has not yet been answered; what is the relative impact of online outreach when compared to ‘traditional’ in-person delivery? Before making any decisions about permanent shifts to remote provision, it is vital that we satisfy ourselves that this new modus operandi is capable of meeting our primary goals in terms of informing target groups of young people about the benefits of higher education, and how it could fit into their life and ambitions.
In order to investigate this key issue, my group at UCLan has once again partnered with Future U to conduct a study, this time with pupils, school staff and WP providers. We will consider the impacts of different delivery methods, measuring their efficacy via learning among the target group, and gather the views of a range of stakeholders.
This is a piece of research which has the potential to benefit the entire UK WP community. This study has the potential to reveal whether online methods can become an effective long-term tool for WP interventions, and how their efficacy compares to traditional face-to-face delivery. With your help, we can discover the answers to these vital questions.
Dr Cherry Canovan is a Research Associate at the University of Central Lancashire. Her research interests include the effectiveness of widening participation interventions via a ‘what works’ agenda. Cherry gained her PhD in Mathematical Physics from Lancaster University, and previously worked as an education journalist.
Canovan, C. and Fallon, N. (2021) Speak and be heard: Listening to schools’ perspectives on widening participation provision. Future U. Available at: https://lancashirefutureu.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Canovan-Future-U-report-FINAL.pdf